Friday, June 14, 2013

Albany Ale: The Story Arc

It occurred to me a few weeks ago that I—or Alan—have never written a synopsis of the whole of Albany brewing. Both of us have touched upon moments, even whole decades, in the city’s beery history, but we’ve never trained together the whole history. That is until now, because someone asked me to do just that.
The Lost Arc of the Covenant

Enter Rebecca Patel.

Rebecca is a Program Specialist at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville, NY. The Carey Center is working to become a hub for the locally-sourced, farm brewing trend that’s sweeping the state, and Rebecca is heading up that project. In order to “become a hub” you need money, and to get money, you write grants, and when writing grants you must justify your reasons for needing the money— historical background helps that justification.

Re-enter Craig.

Obviously this history is pretty generic—a synopsis in the best sense of the word. Although it is considerably longer than I expected. In my email correspondence with Rebecca a few nights ago, I casually wrote, “I can probably get the whole gist of it in a few paragraphs.”

1,500 words later—here ya’ go.
…if history counts for anything, the Capital Region should be a leader in the state’s “new” industry. Brewing in the Hudson Valley dates back to the 17th-century and the first Dutch settlers arriving in the area around Albany—then called Beverwyck. By the 1660s there were at least eight breweries operating in the area. Because wheat grew better than barley in the area, it became the primary brewing grain. Hops grew locally, and wild indigenous varieties were bred with imported Dutch plants. Because brewery equipment was expensive, many of the brewers coming from the Netherlands were wealthy. Because of this wealth, many brewers were appointed to positions and became the city's founding fathers. In New Netherlands, brewing was an integral part of society and was a major trade in Dutch New York. Beer was both taxed and regulated, and under Dutch law, brewers were not allowed to own taverns and tavern owners could not operate breweries. The Dutch would lose control of New York to the English in the 1660s, but its Dutch-brewing traditions would continue.
Many of the original Dutch brewer's families continued beer making in and around Albany well into the 18th century. The Gansevoorts, Van Schaicks and Visshers—well known names in the Capitol Region today—all operated breweries in Albany at that time. As settlements began expanding west from the Hudson River, in the early 1700s a new form of "local" brewing emerged. While most the larger breweries were found in New York City or Albany, under British law, tavern owners could brew their own beer, so small inns and taverns that made their own beer began appearing in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys. The need for locally grown raw materials by these small breweries helped to establish grain-growing farms in this area.
By the 1740s and 50s New York's ability to grow wheat became fully realized. Wheat grown in New York was often shipped to the British colonies of the Caribbean in exchange for sugar. By the American Revolution, Central New York was known as the ‘bread-basket of the colonies’—so much so that during the war, the British Army burned fields and raided farms in that area to deplete the Continental Army's wheat supply. As a result of this, the 20 years following the Revolutionary War were difficult for New York's brewing industry. The recovery from the war was a slow process and an infestation of the Hessian Fly devastated New York's wheat crop, forcing a move to barley as the primary grain used in brewing.
By the first decade of 19th century, however, things began looking up. Matthew Vassar—the founder of Vassar College—was operating a very successful brewery in Poughkeepsie, while the Evans family had been running their brewhouse in Hudson since the 1780s. James Boyd opened his brewery in Albany in 1796—considered to be the first modern brewery in the city—and between 1800 and 1825 twelve new breweries opened within the city. Albany's 150 years of Dutch family breweries had helped it to become a well-know brewing center, and the first advertisements for "Albany Ale" began to appear during this time. In the early 19th century, Albany Ale was a euphemistic term for the best beer—of any kind—brewed in Albany. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and an Albany brewer named John Taylor would soon change that perception.
Taylor—initially partnered with his brother-in-law—opened his first brewery in the early 1820s. A savvy businessman, Taylor saw the opportunity to exploit New York's new water highway. He could import grain and hops from the western part of the state and use the same waterway to export beer west and south down the Hudson. By the 1850s Taylor had built a new brewery in Albany—the largest in the country and was producing a flagship double strength of 'XX' ale, that he dubbed "Imperial Albany XX Ale". Albany's access to the Hudson River and position at the terminus of the Erie Canal afforded it a monopoly on the distribution on beer. Albany Ale could be exported west on the Canal to Buffalo and be in Chicago in ten days later. From there it could be in New Orleans within a week or California shortly there after. It could also be sent south down the Hudson to the port of New York and be anywhere in the world within a matter of weeks. As the demand for this double strength ale grew, so did the number of breweries in the city—seventeen by the 1860s—almost all of them producing some kind of XX Albany Ale. No longer was Albany Ale a euphemism; it had become a specific thing. 
Hops, an essential ingredient in beer, grow wild in New York, but also had been brought by the Dutch in the 17th-century. The first commercial hop farm, however was opened in Madison County, by James Coolidge in 1808. Fueled by the demand for Albany Ale, the hops industry in New York boomed. By the 1830s, eleven counties in central New were actively growing hops, and by the 1880s—in an area the went as far west as the Finger Lakes and as far east as Western Albany County—New York was producing 90 percent of the hops in the United States, and exporting much of that overseas.
Albany breweries like Amsdell Brothers, The Albany Brewing Company and McKnight thrived into the mid 19th century—making everything from the double strong Albany Ale to IPA and Burton. However, the development of the railroad during and after the Civil War resulted in a wane in Albany Ale at the end of the 19th century. No longer did Albany have the monopoly on beer distribution. While Albany Ale may have become less popular into the 1880s and 90s, brewing was still going strong in the city—and expanding into other towns. The boomtowns born of the Erie Canal—Troy, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo—gave ample opportunity for the massive influx of German immigrants into New York in the 1890s. With them, these immigrants brought a taste for a new kind of brew—lager. Lager had been in the U.S since the 1840s, but since it needs to be cold-fermented and then chilled for a number of months, it was never a viable endeavor until commercial refrigeration became widely available in the 1880s. Although Ale was still king in Albany, lager breweries like Quandt's in Troy and Matt Brewing in Utica began opening with increasing frequency. In New York City, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn had become the center of brewing in that area. It was known for its "Bushwick Pilsner"—a relatively bitter, light colored lager that used both barley and corn in its grist. By the turn of the century, lager had become the dominant beer, not only in New York but the country. By the first decade of the 20th century Amsdell Brewing and Malting Company was the only brewery still making Albany Ale.
The American Temperance movement in the United States has it's roots in the 18th and 19th century. It's not until the late 19th century, however, that it truly begins to build up steam. By the beginning of the 20th century, it's at a fever pitch. On January 17, 1920 National Prohibition went into affect—banning the sale, production and transportation of alcohol. Of the eleven breweries operating in Albany in 1919, only three—Hedrick, Dobler and Beverwyck—re-opened thirteen years later in 1933. Those three breweries—and Fitzgerald's in Troy—would continue into the late 1940s, becoming beloved regional breweries, albeit having a far smaller distribution area than Albany Ale. Hedrick and Dobler both closed during the 1960s, while Fitzgerald burned in 1961. The F&M Schaefer Brewery purchased Beverwyck, in 1950. Schaefer was a Bushwick brewery that had over exceed capacity at its New York City operation and purchased Beverwyck to expand production. Schaefer in the 1950s and 60s was one of the best selling beer brands in the United States—even out selling Budweiser. Unfortunately, it to would succumb to the Mid-western, mega-breweries in the late 1970s.
Harkening back to the early days of Albany Ale, William Newman opened a tiny brewery on Thacher Street in Albany during the very early 1980s. While Bill's brewery wasn't very large, it was—arguably—the first craft brewery on the east coast. Popular with college kids and connoisseurs, Newman's—the last commercial brewery in the city of Albany—would unfortunately close by the early 1990s. It would, however, usher in a number of brewpubs to the area, as well as having the been at the forefront of the craft beer movement.
During the 1990s brewpubs became fashionable and Albany was no exception. The Big House Brewing Company and C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station began brewing beer and serving food within the city of Albany, while Malt River Brewing Company and Brown and Moran’s opened in Latham, New York and Troy, respectively. The brewpubs, unfortunately, would also find a similar fate as their historical counterparts. Today only the re-named Brown’s Brewing Company and the Albany Pump Station remain. C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station is currently the only establishment producing beer within the city of Albany. Owner and proprietor, Neil Evans, is from a long line of brewers, his family having opened the C.H. Evan Brewery in Hudson in 1786. 
So, there you go. Albany brewing—from start to finish.


  1. Jeese, did we figure that out? Such clever fellows are we. We better write a book.

  2. May want to proof read that..

  3. I should have mentioned that you or Alan needed to write all this up in a handy one-place guide, the ur-history for people to refer to. This is the strength and weakness of blogs--you can drill down to fantastic minutiae in the Pattinson mode, but for the casual or new reader, it's Greek. We need the background to know what's going on. This is most helpful!

    1. Well, I suppose, to paraphrase the Kiss concert announcer. "You asked for it you got it."

    2. Truthfully, though, I don't know if we could have done this until now. I think all of the pieces have finally fallen into place—there's definitely more but at least now we have a connection from decade to decade and century to century.

  4. Excellent limning of some significant history.

    Not sure what Anonymous meant, but Bill Newman's brewery was on Thacher Street, not Thatcher. The street is named after an 1860's-era Democratic mayor of Albany, George Thacher.


    1. Your right—but it's confusing because the Thatcher Street Pub is on Thacher Street! There were actually three three Thacher mayors. George, John Boyd Thacher and John Boyd Thacher II—who was actually the nephew rather than the son of the older John Boyd!

  5. Thanks Craig. Viz the pub - which I have patronized, and more than once - there is an etymological curiosity. I confess I didn't know about the city house Thacher hegemony, but maybe I had a lucky stroke in assuming it was named after the patriarch.

    I wonder if they were all Democrats. :)


  6. Is it safe to say that Albany was once the center of beer production in the US? Certainly in the state, but would you go so far as to say the entire country?

  7. I don't know if Albany produced more beer than Philadelphia, but I do think it's safe to say it was a close race. Philadelphia—simply size-wise—most likely produced more beer than Albany, but I'd say Albany Ale had a far wider distribution range. Albany, however, was without a doubt the highest per capita brewing area in the country.